Kicking the Bar is a slightly odd tradition found in the west Wales seaside resort and student town of Aberystwyth. Quite simply, at the end of the promenade, under the impressive slate cliffs of Constitution Hill, outside Alexandra Hall, is a nondescript, somewhat dull, white-painted, horizontal, metal bar. It is perhaps twenty feet long, and about thirty centimetres in circumference, raised up about two feet above the ground on a short wall of concrete. Kicking it, usually with both feet, sometimes at the same time, is said to be lucky.
This strange custom has several possible origins. It is known to have been going on since at least the nineteenth century. It cannot be much more than a hundred years old, however, since the promenade itself was only completed in the 1870s. The first story I was told as to its origins was that it was on this site that Aberystwyth's gallows could be found in the days of public execution and kicking the bar was to ward off the evil spirits that gathered in such a grim spot. However, closer investigation reveals that the gallows were in fact to be found five hundred yards down the sea-front where a shelter now stands.
Another explanation given is that in 1894 the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) visited Aberystwyth with his wife the Princess Alexandra. Having walked the length of the promenade, he noticed his shoe had come untied. He raised his foot and placed it on the bar in order to reach his laces. This explanation does seem likely as people react to royalty in somewhat odd ways; for instance it used to be believed that the touch of the King would cure illnesses, and in much the same way, it could well be believed that whatever the Prince touches becomes lucky.
However, the brief actions of a royal, even one as high-placed as the Prince of Wales are not usually recalled more than a century later, much less frequently played out by a sizeable number of people. Therefore there must be reasons why the tradition has perpetuated itself. One major contributing factor is the fact that shortly after the Prince and Princess visited, Alexandra Hall was built next to the bar as a "commodious accommodation" for female students at the local university. This lead to a practice that lasted until the nineteen eighties when the hall was closed, of male students, when they visited the hall hoping to get a date kicking the bar for luck before going in. Indeed the phrase "kicking the bar" took on some... interesting... alternative meanings.
There are other reasons for the continuance of the tradition. In 1939, a great storm hit Aberystwyth, wrecking the promenade. A young boy named Evan Moore was unlucky enough to have been just outside Alexandra Hall when it happened and was nearly swept out to sea by the waves. What saved him was the small remaining patch of wall on top of which was the bar which he held on to until someone came to the rescue. This incident is partially responsible for the bar's reputation for being lucky.
The final reason why Kicking the Bar is so popular has something to do with the nature of students. Rational, intelligent beings for the most part, they do however have the same weakness for superstition as sailors do, for like sailors they are frequently placed in situations where their very lives may hang Fortune's fickle nature. When it comes to the exam period tough football players will be seen carrying teddies into school, a special pair of underwear will not be changed for weeks, improperly hung horseshoes will result in major head injuries, and rabbits will be brutally mutilated; anything to get Lady Luck on their side. Upon hearing of the strange luck-giving piece of ironwork, it suddenly becomes imperative to attempt to draw on it. Not that they believe in it, you understand, but there's no harm in being certain. At the time of writing the custom is to kick the bar with both feet, one after another, to be sure of achieving a passing grade. Those who want the coveted and rare First Class result must kick the bar with both feet at the same time, more tricky than it sounds, especially when you take into account the sizeable drop on the other side.
Should you ever find yourself in Aberystwyth, Kicking the Bar is the one thing you must do; the walk along the promenade is refreshing in a light breeze and bracing whatever the weather, and unlike many walks, ends in the satisfying sense of achievement when you firmly place your feet on the final landmark. It's lucky, they say, and what's more, it ensures you will be back again.